Mythago Wood (1984)
Spine Front Cover Book Details
Robert Holdstock
Publication Date 1996
Format Leather-bound (220 x 145 mm)
Publisher The Easton Press
Genre Fantasy
Product Details
Series Masterpieces of Fantasy
No. of Pages 252
Paper Type Acid-neutral paper
First Edition No
Personal Details
URL This book on
Rating 9
No. of Reviews 19
Frontispiece/Illustrator Jill Bauman
Original Details
Original Publisher The Howard Morhaim Literary Agency
Original Publication Year 1984
Holdstock's fantasy of a surviving primeval forest where legends and tribes of different ages coexist draws power from the myths, archetypes and literary conventions it embodies. The long, Wellsian introduction to the Huxley family and their fascination with Ryhope Wood slowly moves toward a civilized British confrontation with the wilderness and savagery. Unaware of the consequences, Steve Huxley falls in love with the latest incarnation of beautiful Guiwenneth of the greenwoodas his father and brother had before him. When she is kidnapped, his attempt to find her becomes a quest leading to the heart of the mysterious wood. Although it takes its time getting started, and occasionally reminds us that it was expanded from a short story, this is a winning novel with a fine feeling for the interface between airy dreams and sweaty reality. Science Fiction Book Club main selection.

"Some places cry out for a murder," and sometimes murder seeks out a place to happen. So it is, too, with fantasy. Most fantasies require special circumstances. Those that do not, that happen in the glaring light of day, have the unique quality of reconciliation with the every day world, the kind of quality that John W. Campbell's Unknown pioneered and James Blish's The Devil's Day exemplified. But fantasies, like alchemy and psychic powers and mushrooms, thrive best in the dark cellars of the world.

All of this, of course, is an aspect of the romantic notion that humanity has a special relationship to the universe; that indeed, the universe was created to provide a home for humanity and that it responds to human needs or apprehensions or emotions - or, alter natively, that the universe was created by or for some other kind of beings, usually creatures older, wiser, and more powerful, and humanity is a latecomer or an interloper. The extreme form of this romantic notion was called by John Ruskin the pathetic fallacy, in which nature reflects human emotional states, the heavens weeping when we grieve, the sun beaming when we are joyful.

Since fantasy is basically romantic, the relationship is understandable. Science fiction is the literature of the rational mind and focuses on the ability of intelligence to shape the resistant world through the manipulation of natural law. Fantasy is the literature of the human will and deals with the ability of chosen people to shape the malleable world by means of ancient wisdom.

Fantasy does not require the plausibility of science fiction. Fantasy assumes a hierarchical world governed by supernatural powers, and that those powers surrender their secrets to those who place themselves in the proper relationship with it. And yet fantasy must explain why the world seems to be governed by natural law rather than by supernatural whim.

Sometimes the explanation is that the world only seems to be governed by natural law, that this is a surface reality covering a deeper reality, as in Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber. Sometimes the everyday reality that seems to operate without magic or miracles is the result of the abandonment of the world by the supernatural forces that once controlled it, as in the mythology created by H. P. Lovecraft, or by the gods and goddesses, or demons, who have been lost to the modern world because they have been displaced by science or offended by contemporary skepticism. Most often the explanation offered by the fantasy is that the supernatural still can be found in our modern world - but only in special places.

Some places, of course, cry out for fantasy: a dark closet, an ancient castle, a dusty attic, a creepy cellar, a cemetery, a mortuary, a cloud kingdom, a magic pool, an enchanted forest. . . . These are the loca tions where people can be alone with their dreams and their fears, and alone, they can indulge their imaginations and create their own worlds of maybe or might have been. Childhood is the time when fantasy begins, when perceptions have not yet been conditioned to see things the way the world sees them, when the mind has not yet been taught to discriminate between the things that are real and the things that might be real or ought to be real, or could be willed into existence. Fantasy may be the recollections of such childhood uncertainties, and its truths may reflect the psychological adjustments the child makes to the adult world.

Some scholars of the fantastic have divided fantasy into two major types: high fantasy, which offers a fully realized alternate reality, such as that in Nine Princes in Amber, and low fantasy, in which the super natural element enters the real world. Low fantasy is what we are concerned with here. The entrance of the supernatural element into the real world must be psychologically appropriate if readers are to yield the necessary suspension of disbelief.

Sometimes the supernatural is summoned by magical spells or incantations, or simply wished into existence by lonely or angry or frightened people Sometimes it enters without invitation, sneaking into the world or into the lives of special people, or bursting through the flimsy wall that isolates the world from creatures that lurk outside.

But mostly they require special circumstances: a pentacle engraved in just the right way, midnight of some special day in some special place, an unhallowed altar and an unholy sacrifice, unspeakable rites.. . How would the reader respond to Frankenstein's monster without the storm gathering above the lonely castle and the electrical apparatus laddering its discharges while a mad scientist glares down at a monstrous shape upon his operating table stirring into life? Shakespeare wrote about such matters in A Midsummer's Night Dream, ". . . as imagination bodies forth! The form of things unknown, the poet's pen! Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing! A local habitation and a name. . ."

One of the persistent places of mystery and enchantment has been forests. Dante began his descent into hell with the lines: "In the middle of our life I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost." In Pilgrim America forests were the places that had not yet been tamed or brought to plow and still belonged to savagery and savages, and authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, in "Young Goodman Brown," made it a site for witches' sabbaths. Robert Holdstock, in Mythago Wood, explains the human distrust of forests as the conflict engendered by people pushing back north at the end of the last Ice Age who were forced to clear the forest for farmland.

"There would have been a bitter struggle for survival. The wood was desperate and determined to keep the mastery of the land. Man and his fire had been determined that it should not. The beasts of that primal woodland had become dark forces, dark Gods; the wood itself would have been seen to be sentient, creating ghosts and banshees to send against the puny human invader..."

Holdstock, the author of Mythago Wood, was born in Hythe, Kent, England. He earned a bachelor of science degree in applied zoology from the University College of North Wales, and a master of science in medical zoology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, but he soon turned to writing, publishing "Pauper's Plot" in New Worlds while still a student, and a number of other short stories collected in In the Valley of the Statues (1982).

After serving as a research student for London's Medical Research Council from 1971-74, he turned to full-time writing and produced a number of novels and novelizations under the pseudonyms of Ken Blake, Richard Kirk, Robert Black, Chris Carlsen, Steven Eisler, and Robert Faulcon. Under his own name, he began publishing science- fiction novels, notably Eye Among the Blind (1976) and Earthwind (1977), but it was the publication of Mythago Wood in 1984 that gave Holdstock major stature among readers and critics and won him the World Fantasy award. It was followed by such sequels as Lavondyss: Journey to an Unknown Region (1988) and The Hollowing (1993), and the title story of the collection The Bone Forest (1991).

Mythago Wood is as archetypal as the creatures that inhabit it. "Mythago" is a word created by Holdstock by combining "myth" and "imago," in the "portmanteau" fashion invented by Lewis Carroll. "Imago" is the term given to a portrait in wax, often of ancestors, in Roman times; in psychoanalysis, it is the conception of the parent retained in the unconscious. Holdstock uses "mythago" to describe the archetypes of ancestral memory. Just as myth is a story of for gotten origins that narrates some ostensibly historical events and embodies the "truth" about god or peoples, "mythagoes" are the physi cal survival of ancestral needs, such as King Arthur and Robin Hood; Arthur to protect the Celts from the invading Saxons, Robin to protect the Saxons from tyrannical Normans.

They survive in Mythago Wood, a forest that has remained untouched since the last Ice Age, a wood that casts its spell upon the family that lives in an isolated dwelling nearby. The forest has the magi cal quality of being far bigger on the inside than on the outside and of protecting itself against casual exploration by confusion and misdirection. In this fashion Holdstock casts over Mythago Wood an aura of mystery, magic, and suspense, as well as an explanation for how it could continue to exist unknown and untouched in the modern world.

Unknown and untouched by all but the family that lives in Oak Lodge and to whose eyes and minds and hearts come the evidences of something other-worldly emanating from the forest that stretches nearby. In Mythago Wood the figures of ancient myth may still sur vive, and people's desires may take actual form. The novel is an exploration not only of the nearly infinite woods existing within three square miles, but of the depths and heights of human desires and fears and hopes.

James Gunn
Lawrence, Kansas